Tag Archives: Jean-Luc Godard

“Henceforth, there is cinema…”

And the cinema is Nicholas Ray—at least according to Jean-Luc Godard, who bestowed this honor upon Ray in his review of the 1957 masterpiece Bitter Victory. Today is Ray’s 101st birthday—although the Lacrosse, Wisconsin native is essentially ageless: As the director of such films as They Live By Night, Knock on any Door, and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause, he’ll always be remembered as a harbinger of youth culture, a defender of the wayward souls lost in a world that refused to understand them. His sensitive yet bracingly honest depictions of contemporary America went grossly underrated for the bulk of his career, but today we recognize Nicholas Ray as one of the cinema’s greats who told classic stories of the misunderstood.

But as masterful a storyteller as he was, Ray wasn’t married to his scripts. In fact, like most classic Hollywood directors who were worth a damn, he frequently revamped and reconstructed the screenplays he was assigned to direct. His greatest film, 1952’s The Lusty Men, was virtually made on the fly; Rebel Without a Cause was similarly produced, as he said in 1970, “[It] was being written all through the shooting… I didn’t even follow my own camera placements.” Ray would go on to say in the same interview that “the relationship between improvisation and the script usually begins with the director’s dissatisfaction with the way the scene is coming alive.”

Indeed, Ray’s films have a distinct air of discovery in them, as if what’s unfolding on screen is the result of a director who’s unsure of what will happen next. You get the sense that he’s feeling out the scenarios much in the same way the audience is, with each scene exacting some sort of nuance or sense of subtext in a way that feels organic and realistic. Sometimes he simply observed the action; other times, he gripped it by the throat, as in the climactic scenes of films like Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life. A Ray narrative is unpredictable, but it has distinct respect for the viewer, both for its intelligence and its desire for emotion, resulting in a sort of harmony wholly unique to his artistry. Watch as he details this approach quite plainly during scene in 1950’s In a Lonely Place, a movie I, like so many others, am rather obsessed with:

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Notebook 3: Prometheus/At Sea/Color/Palaces/Moonrise/Dreamer

A few notes on some recently released films:

Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, U.S., 2012): So much of this film has already been said and written that it seems somewhat pointless of me to share my two cents, so I’ll keep it brief: Prometheus is a good movie and the sort of escapist cinema that’s actually worth watching. The story isn’t nearly as smart as it think it is—the ideas it explores are no more intellectual than the kind teenagers explore the first time they do ‘shrooms—but I found the film valuable for its classic approach to setting and characterization: The Fordian approach to archetypes, plethora of studio or otherwise handmade sets, and reliance on genre are all tropes of Ridley Scott, who, after the abysmal Body of Lies and Robin Hood, appears have a spring in his directorial step.

Unlike some people, I wasn’t bothered by the obvious holes and ramshackle plotting in the script. Yes, it didn’t make much sense, and yes, not everything was explained in a neat and tidy fashion, but the central theme here is one already explored far more successfully in Jacques Tourneur films like The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon—namely, Dana Andrews’ assertion that “it’s better not to know.” If the film ends unsatisfactorily from a narrative standpoint, it’s in service of this theme and this theme entirely. Personally, I welcome this sort of ambiguity, even at the expense of logic and particularly when it comes in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster, where plotlines are painfully cut and dry. [B]

Two Years at Sea

Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011): Perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, Ben Rivers stresses the importance of an image: The emotions they sustain, the information they share, the language of their form, and the vitality of their presence. His newest film is Two Years at Sea, which is his first feature length film after working entirely in the short form. Like most of his work, it blurs the line between documentary and fiction, but in a way that’s far less conceptual—and gimmicky—than it sounds. It chronicles the day-to-day of a Jake Williams, an elderly man who’s sequestered himself away from society and spends his days in a dilapidated hut in the middle of the Scottish countryside.

The film unfolds with the greatest of ease. It’s entirely dialogue-free and follows only the slightest of narratives, but its use of sound, light, and composition create a story all their own. Two Years at Sea is a portrait, in the purest sense of the word—an impressionistic reverie that evokes a sort of introspection I find unique to Rivers’ style. Throughout the film, I found myself reconciling with Williams’ way of life; whether or not I agreed with it; whether or not I thought he had all the answers or none at all. Of course, the point of the film isn’t to answer any of these questions, but the way Rivers is able to carve such deep avenues of thought from seemingly innocuous images is both a rare gift and true feat. [A]

The Color Wheel

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, U.S., 2011): Here’s a unique case: A film that’s so hilarious yet beleaguering, formally precise yet crudely amateurish, and intellectually stimulating yet thematically burdensome that even after a second viewing, I’m still not sure exactly where I stand with it. What I do know is this: The Color Wheel is unlike any movie to be released in a decade—at least of those that I’ve seen. It follows a stylistic logic all its own and makes no apologies as it ambles between classic road comedy, absurdist chamber drama, and psycho-sexual diegesis.

That said, I’m still not sure how much I like the movie. Its reliance on intersexuality, usually cited as one of its greatest strengths, places it squarely within a reoccurring and increasingly tiresome trope of contemporary indie filmmaking. Perry has made no allusions to the film’s sampling of Phillip Roth and Jerry Lewis, but rather than contextualize these influences via theme or characterization, they’re used more like footnotes, or, to put it bluntly, an excuse for Perry to wax intellectual on what he learned as a clerk at the lauded Kim’s Video.

I can see why this would impress and even stimulate some viewers, particularly the kind of people who enjoy conversations about art and cinema that equate to little more than a dick measuring contest—”Oh, you’ve seen this movie? What about that movie?” “I own the Region 2 copy of that movie and have seen it more times than anybody every”—but these are by far the least interesting elements of The Color Wheel. What makes the film great and possibly important is the way it makes zero apologies for whatever it is it’s trying to do. There isn’t a feeble or unnecessary scene in the whole thing—even when Perry reaches for moments he hasn’t earned (I’m speaking of the climactic scene, in particular)—which can’t be said for most films, independent or otherwise. [B+]

Palaces of Pity

Palaces of Pity (Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt, Portugal, 2011): The opening sequence of this enigmatic parable begins with the lines “The country has changed, but we are the same,” muttered by a wealthy old woman who’s watching her teenaged granddaughters run drills in an empty soccer stadium. We soon learn that one of these granddaughters—either Ana (Catarina Gaspar) or Margarida (Andreia Martins)—are directly in line for her inheritance, although grandma’s yet to decide on who it will be. Rather than focus on the conflict of this scenario, the goal of the narrative is to contextualize history as an ephemeral and ethereal ghost story. In addition to her wealth, grandma is intent on passing down Portugal’s violent past: A flashback takes us back to the Portuguese Inquisition and we see the grandmother—portraying some sort of high-ranking official—condemning two gay men to burn at the stake. It’s within this symbiosis of past transgressions and contemporary malevolence where the characters find themselves, and, additionally, where Abrantes and Schmidt harvest their thematic concerns. Also, fire, as it turns out, winds up having a distinct roll in the film’s climactic moments.

Palaces of Pity is daring in its concept, but at the same time, there’s something very derivative about it—it evokes the loose narratives of Manoel de Oliveira and the diaphanous characterization of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but to fairly diminished returns. That said, the film is outright gorgeous to look at. The way Abrantes and Schmidt blend long shots with medium close ups, as well as images of the actors and images of landscape, are quite inventive. Their eye for composition, as illustrated in the shot above, also cannot be undervalued. [B-]

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2012): The director who inspired a thousand shitty Halloween costumes returns with this touching, hilarious, and deftly realized fantasy about two twelve-year-olds who fall desperately in love and set out to start a new life together in the woods of their island town. Full disclosure: I’ve had my fair share of qualms with Anderson in the past. Though I have admiration for Bottle Rocket and consider Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums two of my very favorite films, his output from The Life Aquatic to The Fantastic Mr. Fox felt, to me, less like a director moving forward with his craft and more like a director content to rest on his creative laurels. Richard Brody has since come to the defense of Anderson’s oeuvre, essentially stating that to love one Anderson film, one must love all Anderson films. I’m not sure I agree with the logic, but I understand the sentiment: Anderson’s filmography is one of stylistic unification, a veritable tapestry of moods and colors that are truly unique to him. So ingrained in his style are his films that the style has become inseparable from the text, which strikes me as both remarkable and infuriating.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom feels to me a culmination of years of work, a true step forward in the sense of what Brody calls the “intensification of [his] characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation.” It may very well be his best film, and I think that’s thanks in large part to his subjects: The aforementioned star-crossed lovers. Anderson’s films have all featured adults as their main characters (or young adults, in the case of Max Fisher), but they often suffer from an arrested development that renders them childlike. In Moonrise Kingodm, his two main characters are, in fact, children, which I suppose made them easier to sympathize with. But make no mistake: These are acutely Andersonian characters—in fact, they’re highly reminiscent of Richie and Margo Tenenbaum, and I imagine the short-lived excursion to the Natural History Museum detailed in their film played out quite similarly to the one Sam and Suzy embark on in this film.

Like all Anderson films, their visual and literal text are imbued with cinematic history. Watching his films is like playing a game of Cinephile Bingo. In this film, there are touches of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (particularly in the scenes set on a the beach), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, and Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Something I noticed this time around: Anderson’s famous pans and tracking shots are usually attributed to Orson Welles, but aside from the film’s opening sequence—an exhilarating overture that magnificently sets the tone for what will follow—not much else felt particularly Wellesian. Instead, I sensed a great deal of Brian de Palma in the way he used his camera. Perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I couldn’t see past it. [A]

I Have Always Been a Dreamer

I Have Always Been a Dreamer (Sabine Gruffat, U.S., 2012): Sabine Gruffat‘s visual essay examines the cycle of urbanization, using Detroit and Dubai as examples if its lowest and highest points, respectively. Video essays are an interesting from in that they’re entirely subjective. While many documentaries strive for objectivity—an ultimately impossible endeavor given the conscious efforts of a filmmaker to show certain images—film essays function as the exact opposite: They encourage and require the personal touch of the director and don’t possess any sort of formal or conceptual “rules.”

Gruffat illustrates this by eliminating talking head interviews and experimenting with synch sound. She’ll often show images of herself talking with an interviewee, and rather present what he or she said, simply relay the information as she interpreted it. The result is a highly personal, daringly original survey of two cities that share more in common than meets the eye. For me, the most interesting aspects of Gruffat’s film were the way she juxtaposed each city’s financial wealth with its cultural wealth. Dubai has the benefit of billions of dollars on its side but appears to be culturally bankrupt. There’s a deep infatuation with all things American—its materialism and its consumerism, primarily—but any true form of expression on behalf of its residents is stymied at every turn, such as a photographer who makes good money taking commercial photos of resorts and apartment buildings but keeps his highly political and highly disobedient art prints a secret in order to maintain his business. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the city’s funds are more or less nonexistent but its citizens enjoy certain freedoms those in Dubai do not, such as one person’s efforts to run an arthouse movie theater in an abandoned high school.

Gruffat intertwines the political and the personal in often profound ways, but never quite takes the steps to make any assured proclamations herself—never quite takes full advantage of the film essay style. She shares a unique relationship with each city and I wish she had explored that further. [B+]

My own Sight and Sound list

Anticipation for Sight and Sound‘s lauded and highly debated Greatest Films of All-Time list is mounting. Once every decade, the venerable British film magazine polls assorted film critics, theorists, scholars and historians, as well as noted film directors, asking them to perform a simple task: select the ten greatest films ever made.

No “greatest film” list can ever represent any final word on such a subject, but the Sight and Sound poll is seen as something of an authority. This is probably because the caliber of the individuals polled is extremely high: From Peter Wollen to Jonathan Rosenbaum to Slavoj Zizek to Gilles Jacob—to put it bluntly, these people know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Only occasionally do I know what the fuck I’m talking. That said, that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. So in a world where J. Hoberman and I are considered colleagues, here’s the list I’d submit to Sight and Sound. Some are personal favorites of mine—ones I believe I can make a case for—while others are no-brainers: Films I and many others sincerely regard as the greatest ever made. Brief explanations follow.

1. La Règle du jeu (Renoir, ’39): I mean, if I have to explain…
2. L’Atalante (Vigo, ’34): Ditto.
3. The Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, ’29): The first film to fully encapsulate what makes cinema the ultimate art.
4. Rear Window (Hitchcock, ’54): Most will point to Vertigo, but for me, Rear Window is Hitchcock at his most imagistic, formalistic, and essayistic. Unparalleled.
5. Playime (Tati, ’67): Some are postulating that this film will be the newest entry to the list, and for good reason. It’s the greatest “3-D” film ever made.
6. Sunrise (Murnau, ’27): Dave Kehr called it the “greatest foreign film ever made in American.” Pretty much sums it up.
7. Monsieur Verdoux (Chaplin, ’47): Grossly misunderstood. Grossly underrated. An elegant gesture from one of the greatest film artists in the twilight of his career.
8. King Lear (Godard, ’87): It’s Godard’s greatest film, meaning it has to be one of the greatest films of all time, right? Look at me—I’m using logic!
9. The Shining (Kubrick, ’80): Kubrick never made a film so personal. It’s so endlessly enigmatic that it gave us this film, which tells me that, in addition to being first-rate genre cinema, it can also eventually teach us a thing or two about the nuances of filmic interpretation.
10. Late Spring (Ozu, ’49): Because I reckon I need at least one Ozu on here, and this is the one I keep coming back to.

Reflecting on this list, I realize what a fool’s game it is. No matter what, you’re always working with a limited scope. For example, I personally consider it a travesty that I have nothing from Bresson, Ford, Mizoguchi, Dreyer or Welles on here. But if I did, that’d mean possibly leaving off the likes of Ozu, Renoir, Vigo, Godard and Hitchcock, which would also be a shame. I’m irritated by it, and it’s my own list.

This is silly. I kind of regret doing it. Oh, well.

Polanski the classicist

Placing Roman Polanski within the parameters of the auteur theory isn’t the simple task it is for other directors. As Paul Coates suggests in his essay on Cul-De-Sac, Polanski may well belong to two separate definitions of auteurism: the kind of auteur that constitutes what Coates asserts is the modern era (where Polanski would find himself aligned with the likes of Antonioni, Godard and fellow Polack Jerzy Skolimowski) and the kind of auteur that is more akin to the original definition of the term, indeed the “classic” one as postulated by Francois Truffaut, the kind that applied to a director who “prided himself on his professionalism,” and “removed the indiscretions of autobiography…by turning them into stories that seem no longer to apply to him,” whose films could be “analyzed in terms of their symbolic concealments”

It was on the basis of this “classic” definition that permitted the Young Turks of Cahiers du Cinema to proclaim that Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks were true artists, on par with the likes of Gaugin and Degas. That Polanski had little regard for the nouvelle vague is evident in his disavowal of classic style. His first three films (Knife in the Water [1962], Repulsion [1965] and most notably, Cul-De-Sac [1966]) are distinct products of the European modern art style that, coincidentally enough, the nouvelle vague helped birth when Godard and Jacques Rivette supplied their films with avant-garde stylistics.

But things changed drastically when Polanski came to Hollywood, culminating in 1974’s Chinatown. Widely regarded as his masterwork and one of the great pieces of American cinema, Chinatown is Polanski’s stab at classic Hollywood filmmaking, co-opting the film noir genre and mirroring the techniques employed by the likes of Hawks and John Ford. However, as indicative of Hollywood classicism as the film is, there’s an air of menace in Chinatown that seems entirely preoccupied with dismantling the myth of Los Angeles. Screenwriter Robert Towne borrowed from William Mulholland’s construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct just before WWI. Much like the dam project in Chinatown, Mulholland’s scheme forced unbeknownst landowners to sell their properties for far less then their worth, thus paving the way for LA to expand. Mulholland pulled it off in 1905; Chinatown, however, is set in 1938. The film isn’t docudrama: it’s revisionist history.

In terms of modernist tactics, this is far as Chinatown goes in resembling Polanski’s previous work, which had similar disregard for history. The rest of the film is the product of “classic” auteurship, with Polanski’s misanthropic view of Los Angeles materializing itself in the form of the evil Noah Cross. Had Chinatown been a work of docudrama, Hollis Mulwray (the obvious stand in for Mulholland) would have been the film’s central antagonist. Instead, Noah Cross is the almost cartoonish villain: he’s all-powerful, not only capable of committing heinous crimes but getting away with them, too. As an untouchable force of pure evil, Noah Cross likely personifies Polanski’s feelings toward the tragedy that befell Sharon Tate. That he insisted on re-writing Robert Towne’s ending so that the film ended on a note that can be rightly‑though perhaps understatedly—described as pessimistic provides insight into the bleak mind-frame he was occupying. Such an act evokes similar actions taken by the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Nicholas Ray, who often made numerous rewrites to the scripts they were assigned in order to inject more personal elements into the text.

That said, the entire film would have benefited from Polanski taking more liberties with Towne’s script, which is arduous and plodding, at best. It’s novelistic structure, though admirable in a formal sense, actively works against Polanski’s strengths as a filmmaker. His absurdist sense of humor, ability to amble between subjective and objective realism, and his sense of tone and atmosphere are all absent in Chinatown, given no room to prosper thanks to the script’s stranglehold. As Dana Polan correctly notes, there isn’t a single scene in the film that isn’t told from Jake Gittes’s point of view (116). This rigid, even oppressive narrative framework forces the viewer down a predetermined path, making Chinatown a far different‑and less enjoyable‑viewing experience than the likes of Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, and even Rosemary’s Baby [1969]. Despite its scant narrative, the open-air playfulness of a film like Cul-De-Sac proves to be a more democratic film because of its lack of allegiance to a single character or theme. Similar tactics are used in Rosemary’s Baby, as the mystery of the narrative unfolds with objective suspense. While Polanski may have imbued the text of the film with any number of his trademark visual cues and thematic regularities, Chinatown’s abhorrent inflexibility suggests a distinct lack of authorial intent on his behalf. Polanski’s attempt at a piece of classic cinema only proves that his strengths as a filmmaker lie in more modernist techniques.